Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Grave Business

I am enjoying the privilege of showing my eleven-year-old daughter around Israel and yesterday we spent the day grave-hopping in the Galil. We had a wonderful time, which both of us found highly educational, yet something disturbed me – the proliferation of ugly mechitzot (barriers dividing men and women) at gravesites. I found it particularly unpleasant at the grave-site of the Rambam.

I last visited the grave of the Rambam in Tiberius some years ago and remember it well. One leaves the road and walks up a gentle incline between fourteen pillars each engraved with the name of one section of the Rambam’s magnum opus, ‘Mishneh Torah’. Passing the resting places of the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the great 17th-century mystic) as well as those of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and other sages of the era of the Mishnah, one arrives at the grave of the Rambam at the top of the incline. The tombstone is quite distinctive and the inscription reads, ‘from Moshe (the original Moses) to Moshe (the Rambam), no-one arose as great as Moshe’.

This preamble is intended to indicate the beauty of the site and how the area has been carefully landscaped to honour the remains of the Rambam in the most apposite manner. Regrettably, the site has been completely spoiled by the metal barrier that now bisects the grave stone itself, ruining the architecture and obscuring the famous inscription. Barriers of this kind have sprung up all over the place to ‘preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing’.

I am in favour of care and sensitivity in these areas of Jewish life. I appreciate that gender mixing is fraught with problems and needs to be carefully controlled and that visitors to holy sites need to pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere. However, a degree of common sense and self-regulation is necessary to avoid a slide into extremism. People had been visiting the grave of the Rambam for centuries quite successfully before the erection of the mechitzah. I think it is safe to say that they managed to achieve their goals there by voluntarily finding a space to daven (pray) undisturbed. The segregation of such sites is considered by some to be a sign of a Jewish world that is stronger and more confident in its Yiddishkeit (Judaism). I feel that the opposite is true.

It is apparent that among a growing segment of the observant world, there is no recognition that architecture and other cultural manifestations may contribute to religious inspiration. Obviously, they have to be crafted to ensure that they remain within the parameters of halachah (Jewish law), yet when carefully devised they can enhance our spiritual world immeasurably. Some of those policing our world see one part of the picture (the need to regulate gender interaction), yet are oblivious to, and even actively reject, any concessions to wider sensitivities: further incontrovertible evidence of rising religious myopia.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, February 09, 2007

Shaking Hands

The religious scruples of a Muslim police officer recently made headlines when she refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair at her passing-out ceremony. She asserted that her faith barred her from physical contact with men other than her husband or family members. This is reminiscent of the 2004 statement by President Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines warning men not to kiss her as a form of greeting. She announced, 'please, all the men in the country, so that I would not be rude to you, do not make kiss kiss with me’.

Jewish law has a strict code of conduct governing interactions between the sexes. Halachah expects care when it comes to physical contact with others, fully cognisant of the non-platonic potential in every touch. While in our society, contact in the form of shaking hands or even kissing has been desexualised, Judaism wishes us to remain sensitive to the majestic potential in each touch.

Contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden, excepting close family members, where relationships are absolutely platonic. Restricting even casual contact to the marital relationship assures that the mildest touch can be replete with love and meaning. Judaism believes in powerful and passionate intimate relations and takes great care to ensure that every ounce of sensuality is reserved for marriage.

How far does this restriction extend? Halachah forbids any contact between the sexes that can be construed to be ‘derech chibah’ – holding any pleasurable or sexual suggestion whatsoever. This clearly forbids greeting others by kissing them, and, at least according to most halachists, prohibits even casual contact in the form of a handshake. If necessary, as in the case of the Muslim police cadet, one may have to explain oneself to avoid embarrassing others, or, by holding something in each hand, engineer a situation in which handshaking can be avoided altogether.

Yet some current halachists suggest that the handshake that commonly introduces business and social meetings is utterly devoid of sexual meaning. It is simply a means of activating a communication and is not ‘derech chibah’ at all. Accordingly, in this narrow circumstance it would be permissible to shake hands. A common compromise involves not instigating the handshake, but taking a hand offered to avoid embarrassing its owner. It should be emphasised that while this view is commonly relied upon, is not reflective of the view of the majority of halachists. It is however, the view of a respected minority opinion, and indeed, the view of my own teacher.

These restrictions do not apply to a doctor’s examination, as the halachah assumes that the doctor is immersed in his or her professional duties, which eliminates any concern. Whether they apply to other ‘professional’ circumstances, such as at the hairdresser’s, is a subject of discussion too.

We are poorer for the desensitisation to touch that prevails in modern society. In contrast, scrupulous observance of these rules not only prevents misbehaviour, but sensitises us to the significance of touching another human being.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Parallel Commandments (Yitro 5767)

It is well-known that the Ten Commandments can be divided into two groups. The first tablet contained five commandments regulating Man’s relationship with God, the second contained five commandments governing Man’s relationship with Man. As the Seforno says:

The matter of these five items - they are all said in honour of God, may He be blessed, through which the one who honours may inherit everlasting life ... That God is alone, one should not worship another, one should not rebel against Him in thought, speech or in action, one should honour Him, for He is ‘our father, our Creator.’ ... However, the five other items, are that one should not harm anyone, whether in body, honour, or money, action, speech or thought - they are warnings to guard against punishment in this world and the world to come. (Seforno Shemot 20)

Less familiar is the horizontal parallel between the sets of commandments. The Man-God and God-Man realms are linked in a profound way. This is the list.

I am the Lord your God

You shall have no other gods

Don’t take God’s name in vain

Remember the Shabbat

Honour parents

Don’t kill

Don’t commit adultery

Don’t steal

Don’t bear false witness

Don’t covet

There are a number of views explaining how this works. There is an entire Chazal devoted to this subject:

The second five statements are said to correspond to the first five statements. ‘Do not murder’ corresponds to ‘I am’. God says: if you murder, I will consider it as though you have reduced the form (of the Divine). ‘Do not commit adultery’ corresponds to ‘You shall have’. God says: if you are adulterous, I will consider it as though you had worshipped idolatry. ‘Do not steal / kidnap’ corresponds to ‘Do not take’. Rebbi Chiya learned - do not steal, let one man not deny against his fellow, do not swear falsely in My name. For if you steal, in the end, you will deny, then you will lie, then you will swear falsely in My name. ‘Do not bear’ corresponds to ‘Remember’. God says: if you bear false witness against your neighbour, I will consider it as though you have borne false witness against Me, that I did not create the world in six days and I did not rest on the seventh. ‘Do not covet’ corresponds to ‘Honour parents’ - they steal each other’s wives. After a while, dispute arises between them, and one kills his father without realising that he is his father. (Pesikta Rabbati 21:15)

The connection between 1 & 6 is clear – recognising God is linked to seeing the value in every human. 2 & 7 – infidelity may be idolatry or adultery. 3 & 8 is understood to be consequential – if one steals, one will end up swearing falsely. 4 & 9 – Shabbat is testimony that God created the universe, corresponding to not swearing falsely in a court. Again, 5 & 10 is understood to be consequential. Another explanation of this final connection could be that one who covets believes that God has given him a bad lot in life, so he desires someone else’s opportunities and resources. Failing to respect parent expresses just the same underlying distrust in God’s abilities.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Why I Am A Boring Guest

What do the following four women have in common?

  • Andrea: management consultant, graduate of a seminary in Israel, summa cum laude graduate in business management, volunteer for a Jewish outreach organisation.
  • Channah: Kodesh teacher in a Jewish Girls’ High School, graduate of Beis Ya’akov seminary (classic Jewish higher-education college) and talented musician.
  • Sara: freelance computer programmer, Ba’alat Teshuvah (late-comer to religious life) of 12 years standing, graduate of Harvard and seminary in Israel.
  • Trudy: university lecturer in psychology, graduate of modern-style seminary in USA and gifted artist.

While the connection may not be immediately obvious, they share the facts that they are sophisticated, attractive, deeply committed to lives dedicated to Torah and Mitzvot, and, wait for it, in their 30s and single.

Although the women are fictional (albeit loosely based on real people), the scenario is not. I (and many of my colleagues) observe this phenomenon in London, but it is happening everywhere. All over the world, there are hundreds of older observant single women who would love to get married, yet have been unsuccessful in finding a partner. I am not suggesting that there are no single men struggling with the trauma of single-hood, just that there seem to be a lot more eligible women around than men.

There is enough to fill a book about this situation, but on this occasion I shall confine myself to three brief observations.

The pain and frustration felt by older singles is barely appreciated by others in the community. Being 34 and unmarried in our community is not like being 22 and just a few years older: it is often an emotionally and religiously devastating experience. The long-term effects of living without a life-partner, devoid of the love, intimacy, support and sharing of life goals a successful marriage should provide, are immeasurable. It is seldom appreciated that remaining single impacts on many other areas of one’s experience and particularly one’s religious life. A common observation made by women in this situation is that they feel spiritually burnt-out and uninspired. They may find personal growth insurmountably difficult and struggle with other aspects of their Jewish lives: davening, learning, and enjoying Shabbat and Yom Tov are among the most notable casualties.

Older singles also feel disenfranchised by the observant community. Our communities tend to compartmentalise people – there are girls, newly married women, mothers, divorcees, widows, but mature singles scarcely appear on the religious community’s radar. The existence of these women disturbs the happy, simplistic vision of community shared by many within it, in which everyone falls into an idyllic marriage before the age of 23. It is assumed that there must be something wrong with those who didn’t or that they are ‘too fussy’, which avoids facing the reality of their existence and the need to treat them as functioning adults. Singles even feel that people speak to them differently from the way they speak to married women. This is especially painful for women who take important, often life-changing decisions in their professional lives. In short, the community gives vibes that infantilise unmarried women, contributing to their feeling of exclusion and failure. While conjuring up husbands may be extremely difficult, this aspect of singles’ distress is the responsibility of the community and is completely unnecessary.

The consequences for the Jewish community are also significant. A growing group of older women, all of whom would love to have been married years ago, are marrying late and subsequently having fewer children. Some otherwise fertile women may have no children at all. This is going to have a catastrophic effect on future Jewish demographics. Dealing with this issue must be considered an international Jewish priority.

These issues trouble me so much that I have become a boring guest, because wherever I visit, I ask the same question: do you know any eligible men? I invite you to share in this project and become a boring guest too.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents